In 2002, the Boston Globe began investigating sexual abuse by priests in the Catholic Church. The coverage immediately took off, and media sources discovered that there was an international movement of priests “shuffled” from diocese to diocese, allowing them to continue to practice even after allegations of sexual abuse occurred in the community in which they previously served. U.S. cardinals, such as Los Angeles archbishop Roger Mahony were implicated in the cover up of this abuse, yet few faced consequences that stripped them of their power or title.
Hours after Mahony resigned this week, he was stripped of his duties by his successor, Jose Gomez, explicitly for his role in the cover-up of these crimes, two weeks after the church was required to provide personnel records showing Mahoney’s involvement.
"It's quite extraordinary. I don't think anything like this has happened before," Reverend Thomas Reese told the AP. "It's showing that there are consequences now to mismanaging the sex abuse crisis."
But how significant are these consequences truly? After more than 50 years of minimal repercussions for those involved in the Catholic Church’s sex abuse scandal and the subsequent protection of those implicated, this act does not hold Mahony accountable for the damage he did in allowing priests who sexually abused children to continue to practice without culpability.
The consequences seem especially light when compared to the Church’s recent excommunication of Father Roy Bourgeois for daring to ordain women as priests. Mahony, in comparison, will remain a priest in good standing, simply removed from his more prestigious duties. The priorities here seem skewed, and as of the National Catholic Reporter argues, not representative of true Catholic ideals. Such contradictory stances, NCR contends, brings to light the “terrible disarray” of the Vatican today.
The Catholic Church exists in a particularly elusive legal category. The Center for Constitutional Rights and the Survivor Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP) filed a case against the Vatican in the International Criminal Court, but there are few national legal avenues for prosecuting the entirety of the organization. Gomez’s act was symbolically important, but in terms of legal action against Mahony or the organization of the Catholic Church itself, it has less weight.
It is somewhat of a relief to see powerful members of the Catholic Church using their expansive power to penalize those who have perpetuated the tacit acceptance of sexual abuse for so long. For the victims of these acts, and for the future of the organization of the Catholic Church, this act is only the first step towards justice.